Reviewers of Gillian Welch’s The Harrow & The Harvest seem to fall into two broad camps so far: reviewers who are delighted to get more of what they love about Welch’s music, and reviewers who expect Welch and Rawlings to evolve past what they’ve done for the last twenty years and who then express disappointment when they see few or no signs of stylistic evolution.
It’s an interesting critical divide, made more interesting by the musical genres in play. Gillian Welch and David Rawlings work more firmly within much older musical traditions, in older styles, than a lot of the artists reviewed alongside them — when they’re playing as Gillian Welch, anyway. When dealing with music that sounds like it’s fresh off the archetypal (or stereotypical) American mountain, questions of authenticity, lineage, and genealogy arise. How much evolution, in other words, is too much evolution? And how much evolution can we expect Welch and Rawlings to display on a studio album, given their artistic choices in the last twenty years?
I’d expect to see more of this critical divide with other artists who are more interdisciplinary in their approach to their music. For an example close to hand who’s been active for approximately the same period as Welch and Rawlings, try Andrew Bird. The difference between the first Bowl of Fire album, Music of Hair (1996), and Noble Beast (2009) shows obvious shifts in genre and style.
In comparison, the first Gillian Welch album, Revival (1996), resembles The Harrow & The Harvest (2011) far more closely than Bird’s first album resembles his most recent album. Welch’s music gets better — I do think Welch and Rawlings have improved their songcraft over the last twenty years — but the way it sounds hasn’t really changed that much. I don’t think it’s out of artistic laziness, either. Welch and Rawlings, working as Gillian Welch, are not and never have been about massive stylistic evolution. (Which is in large part why I was and am so enamored with Dave Rawlings Machine, but that’s another post entirely.) Their work as Gillian Welch dwells in subtleties and shades of gray.
They’re still giving voice to the fictional downtrodden and dispossessed, still using deceptively simple songs to introduce larger philosophical questions (and using album structure to craft drafts of answers to those questions), and still inverting and subverting tropes in the corner of American music that they’ve chosen to occupy. Welch and Rawlings have been doing these things all along. They’re just better at it now than they were in 1996.
The Harrow & The Harvest isn’t more of the same, it’s a continuation of the same — a subtle difference, but an important difference. Welch and Rawlings play with tropes. They play with what we expect to hear, on more than one level and with more than one approach. David Rawlings takes his guitar lines down unorthodox paths to anticipated chord resolutions; the timbre of Gillian Welch’s voice imbues her protagonists’ stories with more or less vulnerability depending on the register she’s using; the stories in the songs that Welch and Rawlings write together hinge on sins committed by the powerful against the powerless — or the seemingly powerless.
This last isn’t a new innovation in American folk music. What’s less common are the songs like “Caleb Meyer” from Hell Among The Yearlings, where the murder victim is the rapist, and the unapologetic murderer is the rapist’s victim. What’s less common are the songs like “Look At Miss Ohio” from Soul Journey, where cultural expectations about right and proper behavior for beauty queens are spelled out for the seemingly powerless beauty queen in question, and where we as their audience are asked to bear witness to both her sins, and the expectations that label her actions as sinful behavior. If anything, The Harrow & The Harvest picks up these uncommon trends and runs away with them in ways more tightly focused than we’ve seen in their previous work. There’s more of a focus on gender and slightly less on class — but both are still present in spades, and often in ways that interlace.
I don’t think the right question to ask is why haven’t Welch and Rawlings evolved stylistically with the music they play as Gillian Welch? The right question is why haven’t we evolved in ways that make the tropes they play with obsolete?
When the protagonist of “Tennessee” doesn’t have to assert her right to go to heaven, when “The Way It Goes” isn’t the way it goes any more, when there aren’t any “Hard Times” to rule our minds — that’s when we get to question why Gillian Welch hasn’t evolved. In the meantime, Welch and Rawlings are still around to use familiar song forms and styles to ask hard, uncomfortable questions with no easy answers.
So, yes, The Harrow & The Harvest was worth the eight-year wait. If there’s any disappointment at all, it’s that their methods are still relevant and that the stories they tell still have resonance. But that’s not the fault of Welch and Rawlings.